The first 100 days of the new U.S. administration has been marked by uncertainty and ambiguity—and while foreign real estate investors are concerned, they still believe the United States is a good place to invest. But panelists speaking at the ULI Spring Meeting in Seattle said they are optimistic about reforms to FIRPTA and other taxes, plus the potential for investment in infrastructure.
“We’re watching an administration that is new to overseeing a vast bureaucracy and new to focusing on a multitudinous enterprise as opposed to focusing on just one business—real estate,” Mary Ludgin, managing director and global head of investment research at real estate management firm Heitman in Chicago, said during “The First 100 Days: Real Estate and Public Investment Implications” panel at ULI’s 2017 Spring Meeting in Seattle.
Ludgin, who moderated the event, asked panel members what they were expecting following the election of Trump and what they believe they got.
Joanna Mulford, managing director at PGIM Real Estate, the global investment management business of Prudential Financial Inc. in Madison, New Jersey, said that the uncertainty of the Trump administration’s first 100 days continues, making investing more difficult.
“We hope to have more certainty within the next hundred days,” she added, “and a little more clarity on how policies will be implemented by the Trump administration. Clearly, tax reform has the biggest impact on our sector, but the policies will not impact all sectors the same way. It’s May 2017 and it doesn’t feel like there is much of a change from last year, when transaction activity was low.”
Mulford said that the first four months of this year have been a continuation of uncertainty that began in 2016. “Last year saw stock market volatility and Brexit,” she continued. “Real estate investors took a pause and there was more concern that cap rates would start rising. Investors are waiting to see what happens, and that’s being reflected in the marketplace.”
Despite the uncertainty of the first 100 days of the new administration, the United States remains a prime spot for investment, according to James A. Fetgatter, chief executive at the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate (AFIRE), based in Washington, D.C. He noted that his organization conducted a survey prior to the November 2016 election that found that 80 percent of the members who responded held a negative view of the U.S. presidential election.
“We haven’t taken another survey, but I think foreign investors are still positive about the U.S.,” Fetgatter said. “I think we are still on track for the first quarter of this year. Our members are still investing.”
The United States is a huge, diversified market and it is the first stop for investors, Fetgatter continued. Investors look at America favorably, he said. “It’s a safe place. But people also like Germany, and some investors are going into London because they are thinking there might be some good bargains there.”
The political uncertainty and low yields in the United States are not scaring away investors, he added. “It’s like putting money in safe-deposit box,” he explained. “It’s an incredibly low yield, but people are confident the money will be there when they need it and it throws off a little interest.”
Mulford added that PGIM Real Estate opened its core fund to non-U.S. investors in 2013. “We are seeing strong interest from non-U.S. investors, which has continued post-election,” she added.
Climate change remains a concern among investors, the panelists added. “We talk about it and we are concerned about it, but it doesn’t seem to be a top priority for this administration,” Mulford said. “We’re hoping to see more focus on it because it’s a long-term problem.”
Members of AFIRE are aware of global warming concerns, Fetgatter said. “The majority of the Europeans are ahead of us on this,” he added. “Our members are astute; they invest only in LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] buildings.”
Investors from outside the United States are very interested in seeing the repeal of the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (FIRPTA) of 1980, which taxes the disposition of a U.S. real property interest by a foreign person.
“FIRPTA puts us at a disadvantage with other countries,” Fetgatter said. “The general feeling is that it is an antiquated law. The move for repeal has gotten some good tailwinds going and it probably helps that we have a real estate guy in the White House.”
There has been speculation about a $1 trillion program to improve the nation’s infrastructure, said Brian McCartan, executive director of finance and information technology at the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority—commonly called SoundTransit—adding that “interesting” supply-and-demand currents have emerged since the election.
“On one side, there is broad bipartisan consensus for unmet demand for roads, transit, bridges,” said McCartan, “and there is recognition that this is a trillion-dollar problem. There were 450 local ballot initiatives in the November election related to infrastructure totaling more than $200 billion; 70 percent of those initiatives passed. A majority of the public supports more public transportation investment.”
Mike Sheridan is a freelance writer in Richmond, Virginia.